Sunday Night Journal — December 11, 2005
Sunday Night Journal — December 25, 2005

Sunday Night Journal — December 18, 2005

Stained Glass and Organ Music

I listen to a lot of recorded music. Too much, really. That overused word “addiction” could perhaps be legitimately applied to my habit, and I find it useful but very painful to give it up or at least cut it way back for a while, which I often do during Lent. And my tastes are very wide-ranging. But there’s one kind of music of which there is little or none among my recordings: organ music.

I’ve always found the organ to be, frankly, rather tiresome in recordings. Even a good recording and a fairly decent home stereo just can’t do it justice. It’s an odd instrument. It can sound more notes simultaneously than the piano, and unlike the piano it can hold them for a long time. This, in combination with the similarity in tone among these notes, can result in a muddled quality. Its majesty can easily tip over into pomposity, and pomposity into something almost silly: because it’s so big and complex, and its elaborate mechanism is so slow to react (in comparison with other instruments), it can have a sort of dancing-elephant quality.

But in its proper environment—say, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile—it is matchless. I found myself thinking today at Mass that it is not the organ alone but the combination of the organ and its building which constitute the instrument. I know almost nothing of the complex lore of these instruments, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that what I just said is a commonplace.

Toward the end of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Jane Studdock is beginning to feel a renewed interest in the Christianity in which she was raised. She remembers the stodginess, the “stained glass attitudes” of the Christians she knew, and then “…in a sudden flash of purple and crimson, she remembered what stained glass was really like.” Something like that happens to me whenever I hear the cathedral organ. Gone is the pompous blare that I remember hearing from my stereo speakers, gone is the dancing elephant: in their place are golden majesty and glory, the sound we might hear if the sun himself could sing. It’s a sound that is felt as well as heard, but it isn’t so loud as to be punishing and destructive, like live rock music. It does not crush, but exalts.

Stained glass and organ music have been unfashionably “churchy” for some time now, but there is a reason why Christendom, having invented them, remained attached to them for hundreds of years. It’s mainly the unfortunate propensity of mankind to become bored and to seek novelty that has made them fall out of favor. But plainly we have not come up with anything better, and it’s time we encountered them again.


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